Pharmacists warn of drug shortage for ventilator patients

Ventilators keep critically ill coronavirus patients alive in hospitals, but some of the drugs needed to sedate people are in increasingly short supply.

"Especially in hot spots like New York City, they're running very low on these drugs," said Michael Ganio, senior director of pharmacy practice and quality for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

In an April 1 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, ASHP CEO Paul W. Abramowitz wrote, "these ventilators will be rendered useless without an adequate supply of the medications."

The letter said "it is imperative that manufacturing of these medications be increased immediately."

Retired Seattle anesthesiologist Dr. Peter Dunbar explained the need for the drugs.

"It's not fun being ventilated,” Dunbar said. “You end up with a tube down your throat which makes you want to cough, you imagine something the thickness of your thumb down your throat, you're going to want to cough it out. We give people drugs to deal with that."

The drugs are administered by IV's that are prepared in hospital pharmacies.

Ganio said in addition to shortages, in some cases, key medications for ventilated patients are coming only in small vials, slowing the process.

"Imagine an industrial baker using one pound bags of flour to make a week's worth of bread. It's similar to that," Ganio said.

In shortages, doctors do have other options.

"Fortunately, we have first line drugs and we have other drugs that we can use," said Dr. Beverly Philip, president-elect of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Philip said there have been supply problems for several years, so doctors have turned to backup drugs with a few more side effects.

"Are the other drugs as good? No. Are they good and safe, yes they are," Philip said.

Anesthesiologists are also trying to use less of the most in-demand drugs, saving them for intensive care units treating COVID-19 patients.

Washington state officials did not respond to requests from KIRO 7 about the local supply of drugs for patients on ventilators.